Rebecca Frecknall’s bold new envisioning of the rarely performed ‘Summer and Smoke’ caught me off-guard last night at the Almeida. Tennessee Williams’ heroine Alma (‘Spanish for soul’, she tells her almost-lover John) has been reinvented as not the nervous, jittery shy-girl-next-door that the script suggests, but something altogether more modern. Patsy Ferran, endlessly watchable, brings a screwball intensity rather than fragility to the part, and much of the first half was played for laughs. This worked, and the laughter was well-deserved, as both Matthew Needham (a perceptive interpretation of John’s almost dazed surrender to the bad boy status he’s not quite sure he wants), and Patsy Ferran are deft in flicking William’s double-edged lines back and forth. But eventually, the frenetic comedy stopped me caring about either Alma or John too much, as they drowned in a welter of piano chords and chairs thrown across the stage, clearly intended to pencil back in the play’s dropped drama.
Alma is, admittedly, a difficult proposition for a modern audience to embrace: prissy, shy, given to ‘nervous attacks’, and embarrassed by a mad mother. Only too willing to play by the rules, she bends herself out of shape as she and John shadow box their way through the beginnings of a romance neither is quite brave enough to claim. Ferran and Needham are at their best in their scenes alone together, each mesmerized, yet hopelessly unable to truly connect until it’s too late. But all the way through, I felt the production hedged its bets between its (valid) willingness to send Alma up, and determination to capitalize on the drama. For example, in one scene, driven distracted by her capricious mother’s sly taunts, Alma suddenly loses her temper – but she has been so keyed up throughout that the shift doesn’t seem especially remarkable, which it should. If Alma’s mother is an unsettling precursor of Alma’s own fate as suggested by the ending, this needed more grit. Similarly, the play’s truly comic scenes, though pitch perfect (look out for a delicious turn from Nancy Crane as the local gossip) don’t have the punch they deserve, lost in the melee rather than show-stopping set pieces.
At the end of this still fascinating evening, I felt that Alma had been gambled away on a shot in the dark. Had she been acknowledged as an odd choice of heroine, allowed a little more of the strange spiritual force that marks her out (and which Ferran undoubtedly could have delivered), we could have both laughed at her, and then understood her just enough to make the final scene a weighty piece of drama that translated the whole into a strange tragic-comedy about life, rather than a breathless night of waiting.